Laos is one of the least visited countries in South East Asia, receiving around one tenth of the visitors Thailand does and significantly less than the majority of other countries in the region. The reason for this seems mostly down to the fact many travellers believe there is ‘nothing to do’ in Laos, which is of course false. There are still plenty of tourists visiting Laos, but it is much easier to escape the crowds and finding authentic local places is very straightforward.
The even better news is that Laos has some of the best climbing in the whole of South East Asia, in terms of quality and quantity. Climbing in Laos only got started in the last few decades, so the areas still feel relatively new and unspoilt. Around 70% of Laos is mountainous and a similar percentage is forested. There are endless stunning mountains, crags and rivers in Laos and the landscape really lends itself to climbing.
We started our journey in Laos by crossing the border with Thailand near Huay Xai and made our way southwards through Laos before crossing into Cambodia near Nakasong. The crags will be described in the order we visited them and by coincidence this correlates to their quality, saving the best till last!
Guidebooks for Climbing in Laos
The main guidebook for climbing in Laos is produced by Green Climbers Home (GCH). The guide is heavily centred around Thakhek, but also includes topos for 3 other parts of the country. The book is very reasonably priced at around $12 if you buy it from GCH. The routes in Thakhek mostly have their names written at the bottom so matching them up with the guide is incredibly straightforward. The sectors are usually very small and sometimes 4 sectors can feel like 1. The topos are mostly hand drawn but are actually good quality and easy to use. The layout is a little odd, the approach notes aren’t at each sector but in one location near the start of the book. When you first arrive it is a bit disorienting, but once you’ve had a look around you won’t really need the approach notes at all. Nothing in Thakhek is more than about 10 minutes walk away and the trails are very obvious.
In addition to the guidebook, we used theCrag and Mountain Project for the areas in Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. The Luang Prabang area doesn’t feature in the GCH guide, and as Vang Vieng sees relatively little traffic it is useful to see any updates posted by people who have been to the crag recently and know the current situation.
The GCH guide also includes topos for 2 other areas, Nam Hinboun and Xaisomeboun. For a few reasons we didn’t end up climbing at either of these crags. Xaisomeboun only has 8 routes and is effectively banned as it is in a military zone. Nam Hinboun is more promising with 28 routes and in an easier to reach location, but our 30 day Laos visa didn’t give us enough time to visit.
Weather and Climbing Season in Laos
While Laos is still very much in the tropics, the cooler months of the year offer quite pleasant climbing conditions, especially when compared to other parts of South East Asia. The dry season runs from mid October until April and the coolest month is December. March & April are the hottest months, preceding the rainy season. December and January are the prime months to climb, all the rock will be dry and the temperatures will be as low as they ever get in the region. Anecdotally we had far less issues with mosquitos in Laos, and only really needed to use mosquito coils once or twice during our entire time there, versus every single day in Malaysia.
Otherwise it’s business as usual for conditions in this part of the world. You will want plenty of chalk and to climb in the shade as much as possible. It did make a nice change that in the late evening or early morning it was just about cold enough to warrant a jumper! Once the sun comes up the temperature rises quickly, but the humidity is much lower than somewhere like Krabi in Southern Thailand, which makes it feel more pleasant and less intense.
Luang Prabang is a beautiful historic city on the banks of the mighty Mekong river. The heart of the city sits on a peninsular where the Nam Khan river joins the much larger Mekong. Luang Prabang is UNESCO listed due to the fusion of traditional Laotian architecture with that of 19th and 20th century European colonial architecture, which is remarkably well preserved. Luang Prabang is an ancient city, which has been inhabited for thousands of years and it is a great place to learn about the history of Laos.
For climbing, the Luang Prabang area is one of the smallest in Laos, and could definitely be a site for future route developments. The main crag is Pak Ou (Eagle Wall), which has 13 routes from 4c -7c+, most of which are fully bolted. Of these routes there are 6 routes 7a+ and above, 7 routes 6c+ and below. The area is truly beautiful, it is around 30km upstream from Luang Prabang near a small village named Pak Ou. You can go up the Mekong in a boat or ride out on a motorbike. Once at the village you take a small boat up the Nam Ou river and get dropped off at the crag, arranging a time to be picked up.
The crag is in a really beautiful location, looking out at the confluence of the Nam Ou with the Mekong. Everything is very quiet and peaceful, the crag is just a lovely place to be. The rock quality is variable, on some of the routes we did the rock was great, and on others it was a little flaky. The wall is enormous and had loads of potential for more routes. The crag is also nearby a famous pair of caves which contain hundreds of buddha statues in a scenic location, the same people that drop you off at the climbing can take you there if you want.
There is another crag in the area, called Gecko Wall. This is slightly downstream of Luang Prabang, so in the opposite direction of Pak Ou. Gecko Wall only has 6 routes, 5 of which are from 3-5c and 1 route at 6b+. It seems the crag was bolted for taking novices on climbing courses and due to the grade range we didn’t bother visiting, but it deserves a mention as it is the only other option in the area.
Vang Vieng is the second biggest climbing area in Laos, after Thakhek. There are lots of stunning mountains surrounding Vang Vieng and some of the walls are really impressive. Unfortunately, the area doesn’t see much climbing activity and is more popular as a party town for rowdy tourists. Apparently it is more restrained than it was, but it certainly wasn’t peaceful! Thankfully the crags offer an escape and take you to some really wonderful areas. The climbing is quite spread out, with no single location being the ‘centre’. It is best to rent a motorbike and keep yourself flexible for visiting the different crags.
Pha Tang was our favourite area in Vang Vieng for a number of reasons, it has lots of routes, great rock quality and is in a really beautiful part of Laos. Pha Tang doesn’t get many climbers and while the routes can be dusty in places, nothing was overly dirty. Pha Tang is the name of the nearby village and the crag itself is actually called Na Pha Daeng, which is extremely similar to another sector in the area. Because of this we will refer to it as Pha Tang to avoid confusion, this is also where you’ll be looking for on your way to the crag.
Pha Tang has 48 routes, from 5b to 8b and they are spread out across a number of sectors. The approach is actually good fun in its own right, crossing through a small river and staring across at the wall as you walk through rice paddies and farmland (don’t trample any crops!). The rock is absolutely beautiful, a very light white coloured limestone with contrasting black streaks and loads of inspiring tufas, especially high up the wall. The atmosphere was so tranquil and the climbing exceeded our expectations, some of the routes are total classics.
Pha Daeng is the next best crag in the area in our opinion, with some great quality rock and a pleasant location looking across to Vang Vieng. Pha Daeng is smaller than Pha Tang, with around 20 routes from 5b to 7a+. Although the routes are generally a bit shorter, roughly 10-25 meters, the rock quality more than makes up for it. Pha Daeng can get quite hot as some of the crag catches the sun for most of the day. There are a few permanently shaded routes but the best time to visit would be on a cool, overcast day. Some of the routes are quite well climbed on, others were caked in cobwebs…while the rock itself wasn’t dirty, it had been reclaimed by the spiders.
Pha Daeng offers some really nice tufa climbing and has enough to make it worth a couple of days, the crags only real downfall is that there isn’t more of it! Pha Daeng actually sits on a big mountain with several large walls that are undeveloped. The specific wall of routes here has been really nicely developed, nothing is squeezed in and it seems to reach a natural conclusion at either end. If the other walls on the mountain are equally good it could make the climbing here quite significant within Laos.
Sleeping Wall is the closest area to Vang Vieng itself and has a couple of sectors all in close proximity to one another. There is the Sleeping Wall canyon, the Steep Roof and the Secret Canyon. Between the 3 sectors there are a few decent routes to be climbed, but nothing here is remotely as good as as Pha Tang or Pha Daeng. In total there are 43 routes between the 3 sectors, ranging from 4a to 7c. The Sleeping Wall canyon is popular with local tour operators taking people climbing for the first time. The canyon is quite small so it can feel cramped, the Steep Roof will usually be quieter as the routes are a bit harder. Sleeping Wall canyon does have some harder routes, but you won’t have much space if there are a few groups in.
The Secret Canyon is accessed through the Angel Cave, which has a small entrance fee of less than €1. The routes are quite short and were very dirty. The show cave is a popular tourist attraction and you may feel like you are in a zoo. People were taking photos and videos of us, shouting up at the climber and one guy actually tugged on the rope! It was quite an amusing experience, but it isn’t the place to head if you want to have a focused or relaxing climbing session.
Thakhek is the beating heart of climbing in Laos, it is the true sweet spot in many ways. Thakhek has 477 sport routes, ranging from 3 to 8c, as well as some projects. But the climbing here is about more than just numbers, the lasting memory of Thakhek is the quality of the rock. Regardless of the grade, or which sector you are at, you would have to look hard to find a bad route. From a 7b roof climb to a 6a wall climb, they just all felt really, really good. Climbing aside, Thakhek was easily the nicest place we stayed in Laos. It is a more relaxed, authentic and less touristic town than somewhere like Vang Vieng. Other than climbers, a relatively small number of tourists (by SE Asian standards) visit Thakhek, primarily to do a motorbike loop, meaning the town itself is pretty quiet.
Climbing in Thakhek is synonymous with the Green Climbers Home (GCH), which is a climbers camp set up by German climbers who developed and bolted lots of routes in the area. GCH is right in the middle of all the crags, which are only a few minutes walk away. It is also possible to stay in Thakhek and ride out on a motorbike. There are pros and cons to both, it ultimately comes down to personal preference. GCH is definitely the place to be if you need to find a partner, as well as the best place to buy the guidebook.
The general area is a really beautiful part of Laos, quite different to the areas in the north. In Thakhek the mountains are smaller but far, far rockier. It seems as if everything you lay eyes on is a cliff or a cave and the quantity of rock is mind-blowing. Even if 50% of it was choss and a further 25% of it was inaccessible, there would still be several lifetimes worth of rock here. The current developed climbing is a real eye opener into what else is out there. The vast majority of the 477 routes are in one small valley surrounding GCH, and that one valley alone is a strong contender for the best climbing area in South East Asia! We don’t want to go overboard with the superlatives, but Thakhek is one of the few climbing areas that exceeded our expectations, even though we heard lots of good things before we went.
There are loads of sectors scattered throughout the valley, and we would recommend visiting as many of them as you can. A stay of around 2 weeks is standard, but it would be easy to spend longer. For a trip of this length, it is probably best avoiding a redpoint siege. There are so many great routes and quality lines at almost every grade, time is better spent onsighting or second-go’ing routes. This will let you experience the variety of the area, which is a big part of what makes it so special, grappling with tufas in one sector and crimping on fossils in another.
The routes have been really well bolted, with the perfect balance of no sketchy runouts and no clipping every 5 seconds. One particularly superb addition to the area is the use of perma draws in the roof and other overhanging routes. The entire roof sector is equipped with perma draws which is a complete game changer, no seconding the route to clean it and no dangerous stripping on the lower off. The roof will absolutely torch your arms, we love steep climbing but this sector is really something else. It doesn’t take long for the terminal fatigue set in when you’re climbing at your limit here, not having to worry about retrieving gear is the extra incentive to push a bit harder, because when you fall off you’ll be in free space and it isn’t possible to just pull back on for another go!
Less than 2km from GCH is another area called Tha Falang. There are over 30 routes here and the potential for many more. This is the only crag that is totally separate from the valley surrounding GCH and it feels like a completely different world. Despite having great rock, long routes and being within walking distance, it seems almost nobody climbs here. Unfortunately, this means the routes are getting a bit dirty and the trails are becoming overgrown. It is a real shame, someone has put a lot of effort into developing routes here and they don’t get the appreciation they deserve, which isn’t encouraging for future development. We thought the rock, particularly at Phantasialand, was brilliant and would really recommend anyone climbing in Thakhek to go and check it out.
Rest Day Activities
Laos is positively littered with caves, it’s as if you are never more than a few meters away from one! Karst landscapes always lend themselves to caves, but in Laos they do seem to be particularly big, interesting and prolific. In tourist areas it is common to pay a small fee to enter a cave, but there are lots of less busy and free to access caves throughout the country. Often these caves will be even more impressive than the paid ones!
A great example of this is Tham Pha Chan, a stunning cave around 30km outside of Thakhek. After travelling on an incredibly scenic dirt road for around 24km you arrive at a vast cave entrance, with a small Buddhist temple as you enter. After turning the corner you see the cave has a large lake/river, which in the dry season you can follow to about halfway through the cave. Eventually the walls become too steep sided to go any further so it is shoes off and wade across to the other side, a bit intimidating in the dark but easy when you’ve found the right spot. You then continue along the other side before walking up a ramp and disappearing through a small side tunnel to arrive at the grand entrance on the other side. The cave is one giant tunnel through a large steep sided karst mountain, the side you appear on is extremely remote and a long way from any roads. The atmosphere was incredible and it was clear that almost nobody ever went there. No doubt there are countless other areas like this across Laos to enjoy, so pack your head torch!
There will be many vast and potentially dangerous cave systems so don’t get too carried away, and probably leave it alone all together if it’s the rainy season.
The majority of Laotian people are Theravada Buddhists, and the religion has been prevalent in Laos for thousands of years. There are many stunning temples to see whilst you’re in Laos, with Luang Prabang being one of the best places to go. It is common for tourists in Luang Prabang to attend the morning alms giving, which is a daily event where local people give offerings of food, usually rice, to monks. It is spiritual, rather than an act of charity and is very significant to Theravada Buddhists. Unfortunately, the tourist hijacking of this has lead to crowds swarming the monks to take pictures, and giving offerings despite the fact they aren’t buddhist and have no real understanding of the process – they just want a picture with them in it to show how ‘worldly’ they are. Do the locals and the monks a favour and skip this. You may happen across the ceremony in another part of Laos by accident, as we did. If that happens then great, enjoy it. But stand back and leave them to it, remember you don’t need to photograph absolutely everything you see!
If you are in Luang Prabang there are more than enough historical temples to see, you won’t feel like you’ve missed out on anything. These were some of the most beautiful and interesting temples we saw in Laos, and actually anywhere we visited in South East Asia. There are many great temples in other parts of Laos as well, many of which will have the benefit of being less crowded than those in Luang Prabang.
Learn Some Laotian History
Laos has a long and very complex history spanning thousands of years, but it is the more recent history of the country that might surprise you. During the Vietnam war, The USA carried out thousands of bombing raids on Laos, in an effort to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail used by the Vietcong. In doing so they claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people the majority of whom were civilians. The USA dropped more than 2.5 million tons of bombs on Laos, more than they dropped in the entirety of World War 2 and making Laos the most bombed country in history. A common statistic to demonstrate how bad it was is the bombing amounting to an equivalent of a planeload of bombs being dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.
In Vientiane there is a visitor centre called COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) which details the history of the bombing raids, the legacy it leaves behind and the struggles people still face today as a result. COPE is free to visit, but make sure you give a donation, the people helped by the organisation need it more than you do. There is a lot more to the Secret War than the bombing campaigns alone, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
Something that struck us particularly was that tourists in Laos, those wanting to go or that had already been, were often broadly ignorant of what went on and paid it little thought. Whenever we mention Bosnia, one of our favourite places, people always seem to mention war and danger, which is incredibly annoying. However, mention Laos and nobody brings up such things, which is unsatisfactory in both ways. Laos deserves more recognition of the Secret War, and people must understand that Bosnia and other former Yugoslavian countries have moved on a lot and aren’t dangerous in the slightest.
Despite being a landlocked country, there is more than enough water in Laos to enjoy some swimming as part of your trip. As well as rivers and lakes, there are a number of karst springs to enjoy as well. It was very amusing to hear people talk about the water being cold, when most of it is the best part of 20° and the air temperature is cracking on for 30°! The most famous swimming spots in Laos are the numerous blue lagoons in Vang Vieng, these are ok, but nothing special and they have become a victim of their own popularity. You won’t have to travel far from the usual spots to find somewhere with beautiful water, solitude and no entrance fees.
Laab is effectively the national dish of Laos, a meat salad made with mince, usually of pork, beef or chicken. The meat is usually cooked, but is sometimes eaten raw. The mince is combined with a variety of there ingredients like chillies, mint, Thai basil, coriander, lemongrass, fish sauce, garlic, onions and lime juice. While Laab doesn’t look like much aesthetically, it really packs a punch, the flavours are incredibly powerful.
Sai gok is one of many types of sausage eaten in Laos, and can claim to be the most popular of them all. Sai gok is made from pork, alongside herbs like lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves. Interestingly, sticky rice is often included in the sausage, which is left to sit and ‘ferment’ for a few days to give it a sour flavour. You’ll never be far from a meat grill in Laos, and sausages are one of the most popular choices for locals, particularly in the north of the country.
Sticky rice may seem an odd one to include, given you will come across it in many different parts of South East Asia. However, Laos consumes more sticky rice per capita than anywhere else in the world, it is a real staple of Laotian cuisine. It is claimed that on average 171kg of sticky rice are consumed per person in a year, which is 468 grams a day! It follows that if you want high quality sticky rice, cooked perfectly, then Laos is where you’ll find it.
Sien savanh is a delicious dried beef dish made by leaving thinly sliced strips of beef in the sunlight, often they are then fried to heat up before serving, but can also be eaten cold as a snack. Sien savanh is typical of Laotian cuisine in many ways, being made with local and easy to source ingredients that rely on good flavour rather than extravagance.
We really enjoyed our time in Laos and we were impressed by the quantity and quality of the rock all around the country. The rural and mountainous parts of Laos are incredibly beautiful and offer a far more peaceful and authentic atmosphere than touristic towns like Vang Vieng. We thought Thakhek had by far the best climbing in the country, although this may not be the case forever, there is so much potential for future route development all across Laos. During our visit we noticed that there are very few Laotian climbers around, and that most climbing related infrastructure is run or owned by westerners. This seemed like a shame, hopefully in the future locals can both enjoy the climbing in their own country as well as benefitting from the influx of foreign climbers.
You can read more about the climbing in South East Asia here.
Relevant Links and Resources
Green Climbers Home, Thakhek
Climbing school based in Vang Vieng
Brilliant again from both of you…looks an incredible country!
Cheers Christian, really glad you enjoyed reading it!